Iceland’s growing popularity as a top tourist destination for photographers and adventure seekers is hard to ignore and definitely well deserved. It had been at the top of our list for some time and when we finally got our opportunity to explore it we made the most of our short time there on an unforgettable trip. It is an otherworldly place full of unbelievable wonders and adventures around every picturesque corner.
The iconic Kirkjufell mountain and falls
Of all the amazing countries we’ve been to, Iceland stands alone because of its completely unique landscapes and untamed wilderness, which are a result of its one-of-a-kind geography. The island is located on a hot spot between two continental plates where magma flows up from the Earth’s mantle. That, combined with its location beneath the Arctic Circle, makes for a drastically changing landscape that is relentlessly shaped by volcanoes and glaciers with impressive and surprising results.
In this magical land shaped by fire, ice and water you will feel like a child again as you appreciate the wonder and raw beauty of the world. We were constantly shouting with excitement as we drove through the epic landscape of mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, rivers, Northern Lights and rainbows. On top of all the amazing locations we visited, some of the best times we had were moments chilling in the van together. We’d pull up to a cool spot to camp and just joke around constantly while cooking up some ‘traditional Icelandic’ hotdogs. Moral of the story? Grab a few close friends, warm clothes, some good music and get your ass to Iceland!
Where else can you see something like this? Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (I dare you to pronounce it)
Iceland has 1 major road (Route 1/’The Ring Road’) that circles the whole island and passes most of the major sights. Some people choose to focus on one area for their whole trip (ie. the South coast or Western Fjords) but for your first visit to Iceland we recommend getting a taste of the whole country in one go. Regardless of your plan there is really only one way to explore Iceland and that is with your own rental vehicle that gives you the freedom to go anywhere and sleep where you want. After hours of research and comparisons we decided to go with KúKú Campers because they had the best options at the lowest prices:http://www.kukucampers.is/. We couldn’t have been happier with our spacious and functional Ford Transit van (Category C) that came with all the cooking and camping equipment we needed, a solid heater and plenty of room for four of us. Hotels are expensive so by sleeping in our camper we combined our transportation and accommodation costs into one low price. We wish we could rent a KúKú Camper in every country we visit!
Note: Consider what car will serve your needs best and definitely pay extra for a 4×4 if you want to get off the main road at all or if you’re there during the winter. Also don’t skimp on insurance because the weather/gravel in Iceland can do a lot of damage.
Our trusty steed
WHEN TO GO:
The high season is during the summer months (June through August) when the days are long (the land of the midnight sun) and the weather is more favorable. Though the majority of tours and activities happen in the summer, we feel that it’s worth going in the shoulder season to avoid big crowds and higher prices.
The shoulder seasons are April/May and September/October which are the times we would recommend visiting Iceland. We decided to go in late September/early October because there were less tourists, everything was cheaper and the nights were getting longer which increased our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We were incredibly lucky that the weather remained clear and mild for most of our trip but there is always the potential for it to turn so be aware of that when planning. Also the autumn colors made the landscape even more beautiful.
In the winter months the days are short (only 4-5 hours of daylight) and the weather is severe. Snow and ice can make travel very difficult and many roads off of Route 1 will be closed. This is the best time for extreme activities like backcountry skiing, dog sledding and snowmobiling.
The Northern Lights are visible from September to April (with September, October, February and March being the best months for viewing).
Whatever season you choose don’t miss a dip in the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
WHAT TO SEE:
Ring Road + Snæfellsnes Peninsula Itinerary (1,800 KM)
The locations/sights are listed in the order that we visited them. We recommend driving counter-clockwise because the majority of the sights are in the South and you will therefore want to spend more time there and not be rushed. Route 1 (the Ring Road) is 1330 kms and takes roughly 18 hours of driving. That does not include the Snæfellsnes Peninsula but the additional 4 hours of driving are absolutely worth it! The sights are spread out fairly evenly (except in the East and parts of the North) so you rarely have to drive for more than an hour between stops. If the full list of sights here is too much then the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and/or Hraunfossar will lower the drive time significantly (but you will miss some of the highlights of Iceland). While this can be done in 8 days we’d recommend adding a ninth night (or more) to give yourself some extra time to maneuver and get the most out of your trip. Also we didn’t do any tours or activities like whale watching, glacier trekking or caving so factor in additional time for those if you plan on doing some.
8 OR 9 DAY ITINERARY:
Day 1 – Arrive in Reykjavik: Explore the charming town and party with the beautiful Icelandic people late into the night!
- Reykjavik is as a charming, clean, and walkable city with plenty to do. It doesn’t take long to stroll along the main shopping streets down to the waterfront to see the Solfar Sun Voyager Sculpture and the striking Harpa Concert Hall.
- You can’t miss the impressive Hallgrímskirkja church that dominates the city’s skyline. Its concrete column construction is inspired by the hexagonal basalt rock seen throughout the country. Take the elevator to the top for sweeping views of the city and its surroundings.
- We recommend arriving on a Friday/Saturday and bar crawling around the many lively bars throughout the town. Some of our favorites include: Dillon Whiskey Bar, Big Lebowski Bar, and Micro Bar.
- If you’re still going after midnight and want to dance, check out Austur, Hurra, B5 and the many other clubs. Be prepared for a late one because they keep going until 5 am.
- We skipped the Blue Lagoon because it is expensive and not a real hot spring but it is up to you if you think it is worth it. The Myvatn Nature Baths are similar and less of a tourist trap. Instead check out a public pool for a chance to relax and meet some locals. https://guidetoiceland.is/reykjavik-guide/best-swimming-pools-in-reykjavik
The feeling when you arrive in Reykjavik
Day 2 – Thingvellir, Golden Circle, Seljalandsfoss, Camping at Skogafoss: Get ready to hit the ground running with an overwhelming amount of sights.
- Pick up your rental early and get on the road! There is no better way to start your road trip than by discovering the sights of the Golden Circle. This is the most popular and busy tourist area in Iceland because it is so close to Reykjavik and includes an array of amazing sites.
- First stop: Thingvellir National Park and the Almannagja gorge. This is the only place on Earth where two continental plates diverge at the surface and you can walk between them! It’s next to the biggest lake in Iceland and is also the location of the world’s first outdoor parliament over 1000 years ago.
- Next up is Strokkur Geysir which erupts high into the air every few minutes and sprays anyone who stands too close.
- Time for your first of many incredible waterfalls: Gullfoss is an epic set of falls that create enough spray for rainbows on a sunny day.
- An additional quick stop is the Kerið crater lake which was created by a cone volcano that erupted and emptied its magma chamber. The colors of the soil and water are quite something.
- Stop along the way to meet some of Iceland’s famous (and friendly) horses.
- Heading South now you’ll reach the towering Seljalandsfoss which you can walk a full circle around (don’t forget your rain jacket). While you’re there don’t miss the equally awesome Gljúfrabúi waterfall which is hidden in the cliffs about 5 minutes along a path from Seljalandsfoss.
- Skogafoss is an ideal place to camp for the night so that you can get an early start the next day.
Gullfoss will leave you wondering if this is real life
Day 3 – Thórsmörk, Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara, Vik, Fjaðrárgljúfur, Camping at Skaftafell
- Prepare to be amazed when you wake up at the base of a mountain with the enormously powerful Skogafoss thundering down nearby.
- If you want a serious full-day hike, the trail for Thórsmörk starts just above the waterfall and is considered by many to be the best one day hike in Iceland. We only spent an hour hiking the first section along the river channel before turning back for our van but we liked what we saw! Do some research on it if you’re serious.
- Next you’ll reach the famous black sand beaches on the South coast. Stop at the cliffs of Dyrhólaey for epic views of the beach in both directions and the massive sea arch.
- A bit further along is Reynisfjara beach where you can see puffins early in the morning and gaze in awe at the impressive Halsanefshellir basalt cave. The basalt columns here offer up great photo opportunities.
- Vik is the last town for a while so it’s a good place to stop for lunch and some more beach photos. You can also hike to the top of Reynisfjall mountain for the best views.
- On the drive to the next stop you’ll suddenly find yourself in the green, bumpy lava hills of Eldraun. These are some of the strangest formations in the whole country.
- Fjaðrárgljúfur is an unreal canyon with towering, precarious paths to the edge of the cliffs that make you feel like you’re in Lord of the Rings.
- We recommend overnighting at Skaftafell in preparation for a big day of hiking at the National Park and keep your eyes peeled for Northern Lights!
Reynisfjara beach (watch out for Thor’s hammer)
Day 4 – Skaftafell (Kristinartindar hike), Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, Hofn, Camping near Hvalnesfjall
- Once again you’ll wake up in awe of your surroundings. Skaftafell has some of the best hiking opportunities in Iceland and if you’re up for it we highly recommend the 6 hour round trip to the 1100 meter Kristínartindar peak. It’s a strenuous but incredibly rewarding journey that will lead you to the top of the world with amazing panoramic views of snow-capped mountains and the immense Vatnajokull glacier. The hike was one of the best experiences of our trip and with overwhelmingly majestic nature on all sides. We promise that the peak looks more steep and intimidating than it is and won’t take as long to summit as you think.
- If that seems like too much there are still amazing hikes and views in the same area that require less effort. On the way up don’t miss the wonderful Svartifvoss waterfall which is carving its way through basalt columns.
- Once you’ve had your fill of hiking drive to nearby Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon and Diamond Beach to see a natural spectacle like no other. This is the base of a glacier where chunks of iceberg break off and slowly make their way out to the ocean. If you’re feeling brave why not take a dip to wash of the sweat from all that hiking? It’s shockingly cold but you’ll draw a good crowd of supporters if you do it.
- With the main sights of the day behind you the small harbour town of Hofn is a nice place to stop to refuel, shop and prepare for your lengthy drive through the east. If you want to splurge on a lobster meal this is the place to go.
- The next stop is Dettifoss far in the north so it’s worth driving as far as you can before camping. We stayed along the coast before Egilsstadir for the night and were treated to the most amazing display of Northern Lights of our trip!
It was hard to get over this view while hiking at Skaftafell
Day 5 – Dettifoss, Myvatn, Godafoss, Camping at Akureyri
- The long drive through the north east will take you across a barren lunar landscape that seems utterly inhospitable. You’ll wonder what could possibly be out there hiding in the grey rock. The answer is Dettifoss, Europe’s mightiest waterfall. You’ll hear it well before you see it and it will blow you away with its massive size and power.
- Now that you’ve visited the Moon, why not stop on Mars? At the base of some red hills near Myvatn the Hverir sulfur vents bubble up aggressively from below. The smell will leave you gasping for air but the photos are worth it.
- On the way into Myvatn make a quick stop at the hidden Grjótagjá cave which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the place that Jon Snow lost his virginity. Even if you’re not a fan of the show the crystal clear and strikingly blue water is quite the sight.
- After many busy days hiking and driving your body will thank you for relaxing in the hot springs at the Myvatn Nature Baths. Treat yourself to an afternoon in the hot pools and enjoy your first shower in days!
- If you’ve got the time to explore them there are plenty of interesting sights around Lake Myvatn, including the volcanic formations of Dimmuborgir and Namaskardh.
- Just when you thought you’d seen enough amazing waterfalls comes perhaps the greatest of all: Godafoss (‘waterfall of the gods’). The impressive horseshoe shape combined with the ability to stand along the top makes it very memorable.
- Get your camera ready for the spectacular drive into Akureyri which is the second biggest town in Iceland (20,000 people) and one of the most stunning locations. We hung out at the cosy Akureyri Backpackers all night and stayed in town. This will be the last significant town for a few days so don’t miss the opportunity to stock up.
Godafoss – Waterfall of the gods
Day 6 – Grettislaug Hot Spring, Camping at Grundarfjörður
- This is the only long day of driving with few stops but after so many active days it’s nice to take a break. To break up the drive we made an hour detour to visit the small Grettislaug Hot Spring which was such a cool experience. There are two small pools nestled on the coast at the base of a mountain where you can soak for free and meet other travelers.
- Even though there isn’t much to see in this part of Iceland the quiet day will be completely worth it once you reach the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. And you’re still in Iceland so of course there are photo opportunities along the way. We camped near the town of Grundarfjörður for the night so we could get to Kirkjufell bright and early.
Grettislaug is the perfect place to warm up for a while
Day 7 – Kirkjufell, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Bogarnes, Camping at Hraunfossar
- While many people will be satisfied admiring the iconic cone shaped mountain Kirkjufell from the base we heard you can climb it and decided to challenge ourselves. It was very steep as we zigzagged our way up the lightly worn trail and there are 3 short sections where you need to scramble/rock climb using ropes to get up but the views of Grundarfjörður and the surrounding mountains were absolutely worth the hard effort and vertigo. This is the most famous mountain in Iceland so you’ll definitely want to conquer it and you might even meet some goats while you’re up there!
- If you’re not up for the hike at least your pictures of the small waterfall with the mountain in the back will make all your friends jealous.
- Along the western tip of the peninsula you’ll reach another unique volcanic landscape of bumpy moss covered lava on the way to the Djúpalónssandur beach. There are a few options for coastal hikes here and on the beach you’ll find wild rock formations and the rusted remains of an old wrecked ship scattered along the beach haphazardly.
- Further along are the coastal towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar which is another popular place to hike along, especially if you’re interested in bird watching.
- The two hour drive along the south coast of the peninsula is another stunning reminder of Iceland’s beauty as steep mountains give way to broad plains of farms.
- Outside of the peninsular the town of Bogarnes is another beautiful place to stop before reaching your last stop at Hraunfossar. This is a vastly different style of waterfall than the others with majestic cascading falls emerging from a forest. We camped here overnight and viewed the falls in the morning.
Hraunfossar is like no other waterfall in Iceland
Day 8 – Return to Reykjavik for one last night or fly home
- Can you believe the epic whirlwind week is already over? Just think of all the unbelievable sights and memories you’ve had in such a short time. Where else on Earth can you squeeze this much into 1 week?
- We had an extra day in Reykjavik which we used to clean our van, hang out in a pool, and take advantage of one last big night out with the locals, but you could definitely fly home on this afternoon if you don’t have time. Or look to Europe which is just a short flight away!
Watching the Northern lights put on a show
FULL LIST OF SIGHTS IN ORDER:
Golden Circle: Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Strokkur Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall, Kerið crater
Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls
Þórsmörk (Thórsmörk) hike
Reynisfjara beach and Halsanefshellir basalt cave
Skaftafell National Park: hiking, Svartifvoss waterfall, Kristínartindar peak, glaciers/ice caves
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon and Diamond beach
Hofn harbour town
Hverir sulfur vents
Myvatn Nature Baths and Grjótagjá cave
Lake Myvatn – Dimmuborgir, Namaskardh
Godafoss: waterfall ‘of the gods’
Grettislaug hot spring
Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall
Djúpalónssandur volcanic beach
Arnarstapi and Hellnar coastal towns
Hraunfossar & Barnafoss Waterfalls
Don’t forget to pack an extra pair of socks
WHAT TO BRING:
- A credit/debit card and some cash – you’ll almost never need to pay cash for anything but it doesn’t hurt to have a few thousand kroner on hand in case
- An Icelandic Sim card – they are cheap and come with more than enough data to make your way around the country using google maps and looking up things to do (as well as sharing your amazing photos on social media). Your phone needs to be unlocked.
- A GPS – get one with your rental if you don’t have a sim card.
- Toilet paper – most of the time you’ll be in completely remote places when nature calls.
- Bluetooth speakers – what’s a road trip without music?
- Plenty of water and snacks for the road.
- Solid/waterproof hiking boots – you’ll be happy when you encounter mud and rain.
- Many layers of warm and waterproof clothing – depending on the weather, time of day and the activity you’re doing you will fluctuate between temperatures. Having many layers of clothing will help manage that a lot.
- Photography gear – a tripod is a must if you want to photograph the Northern Lights and multiple lenses are great for playing with different zooms. A wide angle lens is perfect for the broad landscape shots. For those extreme shots you’ll definitely want a GoPro.
- There is nothing more epic than filming Iceland from above with a drone. We brought one and used it at every opportunity to attempt to capture the beauty of Iceland in 360 degrees.
One Icelandic word we picked up during the trip… FOSS.
Getting to and from Keflavik Airport
- There are two bus companies Iceland Excursions and Flybus that both offer the same shuttle service to the city center. Go with whichever one comes first because the price is the same.
- Cabs are insanely expensive (a 10 minute cab cost us $45 CAD) so avoid them at all costs!
Be flexible and personalize your Itinerary to match your priorities
- This itinerary worked perfectly for the time we had (8 nights) as we saw everything we planned to and never felt rushed. We felt like it was the perfect balance of waterfalls, hot springs, hiking and driving but everyone will have different things they want to spend more or less time on, especially hiking and tours/activities.
- The best part about the Ring Road is that you can make your journey up as you go. If you find somewhere that you love and want to spend more time than planned you can always make it up by driving more later or skipping a section if necessary.
- Weather is completely unpredictable and will often be a major factor during your trip so attempt to plan accordingly and change your plans if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Meet the locals!
- The Icelandic people are incredibly friendly, polite and helpful. We went for drinks with a few and they answered all our random questions about their country, taught us how to pronounce the places we had visited and introduced us to the local liqueur Brennivín. They are understandably proud of their heritage and the beautiful country they call home so don’t be shy.
Bring some food from home, eat simple meals and lots of hot dogs
- Because Iceland is an island almost everything is imported from Europe and is therefore quite expensive. Even the most basic meal in a restaurant will cost twice what it would at home so we each brought 3 KG of food (which travelers are allowed to bring into Iceland). We ate simple meals like rice, chili, instant noodles, sandwiches, cereal, and lots of hot dogs (from gas stations and ones we BBQd).
- Groceries are decently priced at the Bónus and Krónan supermarkets which are in most cities/towns.
- Also be prepared for extremely high alcohol prices and either bring some liquor from the duty free or stick to beer (especially Einstock!).
Befriending the locals!
Take the time to learn the rules of the road
- Ask at your rental place and especially remember these:
- Always stick to the speed limit to avoid expensive tickets (100KM/hour on Route 1).
- You must have your lights on at all times when driving – it’s the law.
- Be careful on one-way bridges – whoever arrives first, enters first.
- Don’t just stop on the side of the road. Even though you’ll want to constantly pull over for photo opportunities wait for a proper pull-off because the road is too narrow to park on the side safely.
- Watch out for sheep! They’ll run in front of your car with no warning which could lead to a costly and dangerous mistake. Slow down and honk as you approach them (the vast number of sheep and their crazy antics inspired this shirt: Link to No Sleep Just Sheep)).
- Fill up on gas when you’re below half because it could be awhile before the next station.
Chasing the Northern Lights
- There is nothing like seeing the Northern Lights swirl, dance and vibrate across the sky with a mix of vibrant green, blue and red light.
- They are visible from September to April (with September, October, February and March being the best months for viewing).
- Night driving was a big help in getting us closer to our next destination while also keeping our eyes out for the lights. We had our best luck seeing them between 11-1 AM on dark, clear nights, especially on the East coast.
- Check the aurora forecast – http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
Cheers! Have any questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org